I know that I know nothing

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The phrase "I know that I know nothing" or "I know one thing: that I know nothing" (originally from Latin: "ipse se nihil scire id unum sciat",[1] a possible paraphrase from a Greek text; also quoted as "scio me nihil scire" or "scio me nescire" or "hoc unum scio, me nihil scire";[2] later back-translated to Katharevousa Greek as "[ἓν οἶδα ὅτι] οὐδὲν οἶδα", [hèn oîda hóti] oudèn oîda),[3] sometimes called the Socratic paradox, is a well-known saying that is derived from Plato's account of the Greek philosopher Socrates.

This saying is also connected and/or conflated with the answer Socrates is said to have received from Pythia, the oracle of Delphi, in answer to the question "who is the wisest man in Greece?".

In Plato[edit]

The saying, though widely attributed to Plato's Socrates in both ancient and modern times, actually occurs nowhere in Plato's works as is.[4] Two prominent Plato scholars have recently argued that the claim should not be attributed to Plato's Socrates.[5]

However, in Apology, Plato relates that:[6]

[…] οὗτος μὲν οἴεταί τι εἰδέναι οὐκ εἰδώς, ἐγὼ δέ, ὥσπερ οὖν οὐκ οἶδα, οὐδὲ οἴομαι
[This man, on one hand, believes that he knows something, while not knowing (anything). On the other hand, I — equally ignorant — do not believe (that I know anything).]

The impreciseness of the paraphrase of this as I know that I know nothing stems from the fact that the author is not saying that he does not know anything but means instead that one cannot know anything with absolute certainty but can feel confident about certain things.[7]

Chaerephon, a friend of Socrates asked Pythia, the oracle of Delphi: "Is anyone wiser than Socrates?". The answer was: "No human is wiser". Socrates tried to find someone wiser than himself, since he denied any knowledge, among politicians, poets, and craftsmen. It appeared that politicians claimed wisdom without knowledge; poets could touch people with their words, but did not know their meaning; and craftsmen could claim knowledge only in specific and narrow fields. The interpretation of the Oracle's answer might be Socrates' awareness of his own ignorance.[8]

Socrates also deals with this phrase in Plato's dialogue Meno when he says:[9]

καὶ νῦν περὶ ἀρετῆς ὃ ἔστιν ἐγὼ μὲν οὐκ οἶδα, σὺ μέντοι ἴσως πρότερον μὲν ᾔδησθα πρὶν ἐμοῦ ἅψασθαι, νῦν μέντοι ὅμοιος εἶ οὐκ εἰδότι.
[So now I do not know what virtue is; perhaps you knew before you contacted me, but now you are certainly like one who does not know.] (trans. G.M.A. Grube)

Here, Socrates aims at the change of Meno's opinion, who was a firm believer in his own opinion and whose claim to knowledge Socrates had disproved.

It is essentially the question that begins "post-Socratic" Western philosophy. Socrates begins all wisdom with wondering, thus one must begin with admitting one's ignorance.[10] After all, Socrates' dialectic method of teaching was based on that he as a teacher knew nothing, so he would derive knowledge from his students by dialogue.

There is also a passage by Diogenes Laertius in his work Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers where he lists, among the things that Socrates used to say:[11] "εἰδέναι μὲν μηδὲν πλὴν αὐτὸ τοῦτο εἰδέναι", or "that he knew nothing except that he knew that very fact (i.e. that he knew nothing)."

Again, closer to the quote, there's a passage in Plato's Apology, where Socrates says that after discussing with someone he started thinking that[12]

τούτου μὲν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐγὼ σοφώτερός εἰμι· κινδυνεύει μὲν γὰρ ἡμῶν οὐδέτερος οὐδὲν καλὸν κἀγαθὸν εἰδέναι, ἀλλ᾽ οὗτος μὲν οἴεταί τι εἰδέναι οὐκ εἰδώς, ἐγὼ δέ, ὥσπερ οὖν οὐκ οἶδα, οὐδὲ οἴομαι· ἔοικα γοῦν τούτου γε σμικρῷ τινι αὐτῷ τούτῳ σοφώτερος εἶναι, ὅτι ἃ μὴ οἶδα οὐδὲ οἴομαι εἰδέναι.

where the translation is roughly:

I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.

Alternative usage[edit]

A secondary usage refers to statements of Socrates that seem contrary to common sense, such as that "no one desires evil"[13] (see Socratic paradoxes).

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "He himself thinks he knows one thing, that he knows nothing"; Cicero, Academica, Book I, section 1.
  2. ^ A variant is found in von Kues, De visione Dei, XIII, 146 (Werke, Walter de Gruyter, 1967, p. 312): "...et hoc scio solum, quia scio me nescire... [I know alone, that (or because) I know, that I do not know]."
  3. ^ Translatum: The Greek Translation Vortal – Topic: All I know is that I know nothing
  4. ^ Gail Fine, "Does Socrates Claim to Know that He Knows Nothing?", Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy vol. 35 (2008), pp. 49–88.
  5. ^ Fine argues that "it is better not to attribute it to him" ("Does Socrates Claim to Know that He Knows Nothing?", Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy vol. 35 (2008), p. 51). C.C.W. Taylor has argued that the "paradoxical formulation is a clear misreading of Plato" (Socrates, Oxford University Press 1998, p. 46).
  6. ^ Plato, Apology 21d.
  7. ^ Stokes, Michael C. (1997). Apology of Socrates. Warminster: Aris & Phillips. p. 18. ISBN 0-85668-371-X. 
  8. ^ Plato; Morris Kaplan (3 February 2009). The Socratic Dialogues. Kaplan Publishing. p. 9. ISBN 978-1-4277-9953-1. Retrieved 23 July 2011. 
  9. ^ Plato, Meno 80d1–3.
  10. ^ I know that I know nothing from a blog view
  11. ^ Diogenes Laertius II.32.
  12. ^ Plato, Apology 21d.
  13. ^ Terence Irwin, The Development of Ethics, vol. 1, Oxford University Press 2007, p. 14; Gerasimos Santas, "The Socratic Paradoxes", Philosophical Review 73 (1964), pp. 147–64.

External links[edit]

  • Quotations related to Socrates at Wikiquote